If you have ever hosted a tie-dye party, you know how much fun everyone has folding, tying, and dyeing a garment into bright splotches of color! But these days, buying cotton t-shirts for a whole group of people may seem prohibitively expensive, which leaves you with cheaper options such as polyester tees. But this begs the question, can you tie-dye polyester?
Tie-dyeing polyester is possible, but it requires boiling water and a special type of synthetic dye designed for use with this fabric. Polyester does not hold water-soluble or fiber-reactive dyes the way cotton does. A typical tie-dye kit will apply color to the polyester, but it will all rinse away when the fabric touches water.
In this article, you will learn what makes polyester harder to dye than natural fabrics. You will discover 6 ways to tie-dye polyester successfully. Finally, you will find out how to care for tie-dyed polyester.
Can You Tie Dye Polyester?
You can tie-dye polyester by using a boiling dye bath and a disperse dye. That said, you cannot successfully tie-dye polyester with many traditional methods, such as using most kits or ice cubes to create patterns.
Tie-dye uses folding, twisting, or knotting techniques to form negative space where dye does not reach the fabric. This creates unique patterns like spirals, swirls, sunbursts, and more in a garment or piece of cloth.
The art of tie-dye, in terms of the folding or tying technique you use, does not need to change from one type of fabric to another. You can use the same series of folds to create a twisting helix shape with cotton as you would with polyester. But you do need to change up the way you apply dye to the garment after creating these folds and holding them in place with string or rubber bands.
The lovely art form of tie-dye traditionally works best on all-natural fabric like cotton because the fibers in this kind of cloth can easily absorb dye particles carried on water. Fiber-reactive or water-soluble dyes that you simply need to stir into water work great with cotton tees.
Polyester, on the other hand, does not absorb water, making it difficult to use water-soluble dyes with this type of material.
Why Does Polyester Not Dye Well?
Polyester does not dye as easily as other types of fabric because of its synthetic composition. Unlike cotton, which comes from the fibers in a cotton boll or wool that comes from the fleece of a sheep, polyester comes from highly processed, totally manmade byproducts of petroleum. Polyester is essentially a super thin, finely woven strand of plastic.
Because of this, it will not surprise you to learn that polyester fabric is also hydrophobic, meaning that it does not easily absorb water.
When you dye cotton, the dye particles dissolve in water. The cotton fibers expand in the water and then soak up that water and the dye lodges inside the fibers. With proper curing and drying, the dye will remain permanently in the fabric.
When you dye polyester in a similar dye bath, it will change color a little. But if you rinse the garment or go on to the curing process, most of the color will sluice away. This is because those water-borne dye particles could not get inside the plastic fibers in the polyester fabric.
First, polyester fibers don’t expand in cool water. Second, the dye particles in water-soluble dyes have large molecules that can’t get inside the non-expanded polyester fibers.
You may sometimes find a recommendation to use a water-soluble dye on polyester and then rinse it in vinegar to “set” the dye. This does not work. Vinegar only helps to set dye in certain types of fabric, such as wool, where the acid in the vinegar serves as a mordant to help set the color.
Can You Dye 100% Polyester?
You can dye 100% polyester fabric by using a very hot dye bath containing synthetic, disperse dye. You cannot successfully dye polyester using any other method, including bleach tie-dye, ice tie-dye, RIT or Tulip tie-dye kits, or natural dyes.
Instead, you need to use a smaller version of the same process big factories use to dye polyester. Fabric manufacturers use synthetic dye for synthetic fabric. This kind of dye called a disperse dye, only partly dissolves in water.
The dye particles have special nonionic properties that allow them to disperse or hover throughout the water without fully dissolving. Another reason this works well is that disperse dyes have much smaller molecules than other types of dyes.
But this special non-dissolving dye on its own does not do the trick. You also need to add heat in a boiling dye bath that reaches a temperature between 216℉ to 260℉.
When you heat polyester in boiling water, the tiny, invisible plastic fibers inside its threads open slightly. This allows those floating dye particles in the boiling bath to bond inside the polyester fibers, permanently coloring the cloth.
Using disperse dyes also works well on other synthetic nonionic types of cloth, such as nylon.
One last thing to note about dyeing polyester is that not every kind of garment made out of polyester will dye well. If you have a formal dress like a ballgown, wedding dress, or prom dress, check the care label to see if it says “dry clean only.” These delicate fabrics may not respond well to the boiling dye bath necessary to color the fabric.
What Tie-Dye Works On Polyester: 6 Methods
Now that you know why polyester requires special dyeing methods, you can try out six ways to successfully tie-dye polyester.
Before you try any of these methods, wash the garment or fabric you want to dye. This will remove any buildup of dirt, fabric softener, or sizing on the surface of the material.
You should also iron the garment. Yes, you will fold or twist it as you get ready to tie dye, but this removes any unwanted wrinkles from your finished design.
1. Pastels/With RIT or TulipYou can create a pale version of tie-dye on polyester using popular kits made by Rit or Tulip.
As you know, after reading about the challenges of dyeing polyester, brand-name tie-dye kits like RIT and Tulip do not work well to permanently dye polyester. That said, they offer a good solution for certain types of tie-dye, like dyeing polyester felt that will not get washed later.
Using these methods, you can also create a light, pastel shade of tie-dye on polyester, though it will fade over time and will not produce vivid colors. Moms who want to buy a set of durable, cheap tees for their kids to tie-dye often go this route because they don’t mind the paler colors as a tradeoff for the lower cost.
The low cost and simplicity of this technique are the reason you see this method recommended so much on crafting sites, even though technically, it does not work to permanently dye polyester.
Please note that this method does not produce permanent or professional results for garments you plan to wash and wear. For the best results for tie-dyeing polyester clothing, skip down to the section on disperse dyes.
- Fold the garment or fabric into the pattern you want. For example, simple accordion folds bound in place with rubber bands will produce stripes or squares across the finished work.
- Next, mix up the dye according to the instructions in the kit. Most of the time, you add a small amount of powdered dye to a squeeze bottle, measure in the appropriate amount of water, and shake well.
- Put your garment in a clean bucket or bowl and liberally apply the dye.
- Let it rest for the recommended time (usually at least one hour to as long as overnight).
- Rinse the garment to remove excess dye. A lot of the color will wash away at this point, so brace yourself for that!
- Run the freshly dyed garment through a cycle in the dryer.
- Make sure you do not include this garment with a load of laundry. The dye will come off and stain other garments if you do.
2. 50/50 PolycottonAnother popular way to tie-dye polyester easily and at a lower cost is to use clothes made from a blend of polyester and cotton. You can use any type of fiber-reactive dye, such as the popular Tulip tie-dye kits, for this method because you will dye the cotton fibers within the garment, not the polyester!
Keep in mind that this means that only 50% of the garment will hold on to the color, though. Because of this, you should expect much paler and less vibrant shades than you would get from tie-dyeing a pure cotton garment.
Polycotton, such as a 50/50 blend of polyester and cotton fibers, makes a popular choice for many types of clothing like t-shirts because polyester costs less and has better durability. But the cotton feels softer and has more breathability. Mixing the two gives you the best of both worlds.
- Start by filling a large, clean pot halfway full of water and bring it to a simmering boil.
- While the water heats, prep your shirt in the folds/twists you want for your tie-dye design. Since you will use hot water, you may want to hold the design in place with twine instead of rubber bands.
- Lower your clean shirt into the water and let it boil for five minutes. Adding an element of heat to the process will not completely dye the polyester half of the shirt since you will not use synthetic dyes. However, it will allow more color retention in 50% of shirts made of polyester fibers.
- Take the shirt out of the water and place it in a clean basin.
- Apply the dye according to the instructions on the kit.
- After the appropriate setting period, rinse the shirt and follow the instructions on the dye kit for washing and drying the garment.
3. Disperse DyesThe best way to tie-dye polyester is to use disperse dyes and a boiling dye bath. This method allows you to bond synthetic dye permanently with the synthetic fabric, so your tie-dyed pattern will remain vibrant and bold even after you wash it.
One thing to remember when tie-dyeing polyester is that you can only create single-color patterns unless you want to go through the whole dyeing process multiple times. This is because you have to use an immersion dyeing method by placing the whole garment into a pot of boiling dye. That said, you can dye the shirt and then re-dye it to add a second color.
You can often find disperse dyes at craft stores, but you can also easily order them online. Brands like iDye, Dharma, and ProSperse all offer these dyes for sale.
- Begin by folding, tying, or scrunching the polyester shirt into the desired pattern. Use pieces of twine to hold the folds or scrunches in place.
- Next, fill a large pot halfway full of boiling water. The best practice here is to buy a cheap, large aluminum pot because you should not use the same pot for food later on.
- Add the dye according to the instructions on the package.
- Use tongs to lower the garment into the dye bath.
- Allow the boiling dye bath to simmer at a low boil for one hour.
- Stir every ten to fifteen minutes.
- Use tongs again to remove the shirt from the boiling dye and place it in a draining basin to cool down.
- Once it cools slightly, seal it in a large Ziploc to rest overnight in a warm place.
- At this point, you can take out your twine bindings. Rinse the shirt under warm running water till no color runs away.
- As an optional step, you can add a dye fixative like Retayne. Fill a bucket with hot water and add one teaspoon of Retayne. This will help prevent the dye from bleeding out of the garment when you wash it.
- Soak the garment in this solution for one hour.
- Finally, wash the tie-dyed garment in your washing machine with normal detergent and run it through the dryer.
4. 60/40 PolycottonYou can tie-dye 60/40 polycotton in two different ways depending on which type of fabric fiber makes up the 60% in the blend.
For fabric containing 60% cotton fibers and 40% polyester fibers, go ahead and dye the shirt as if it contained just cotton. This will leave you with a paler, slightly more faded, or vintage-looking design, but the 60% cotton fibers in the garment will hold onto plenty of regular, water-soluble dye.
For fabric containing 60% polyester fibers and only 40% cotton, you will want to use two dyes at the same time in a boiling dye bath. You will include a disperse dye for the polyester but also add a fiber-reactive dye for the cotton. Finally, you will want to use a setting agent like Retayne to make sure the disperse dye stays permanent in the polyester.
5. Polyester ShirtsThe best way to tie-dye a polyester shirt is to use disperse dyes and a single-color design. Using this technique, you can create beautiful Shibori, watercolor, simple single-shade starbursts, or other tie-dye designs.
- Begin by washing the polyester shirt to remove anything clogging the fabric fibers, such as old fabric softener or sizing on a new garment. After it dries, iron it to remove any wrinkles.
- Next, choose the special pattern you want to create in your finished tie-dye. You will want to fold the shirt in a certain way to create a Shibori pattern vs a scrunched galaxy effect, for example. The easiest tie-dye pattern for beginners is to scrunch handfuls of the shirt and tie each scrunch in place with a length of twine.
- Prep your dye bath just as you did in the disperse dye method earlier in this article. Make sure the water boils before adding the dye powder and then lowering the folded/tied shirt into the bath.
- Since the boiling dye bath will not smell good, open a window or run a vent fan while you frequently stir the dye bath. Stirring ensures that the millions of floating dye particles will keep swirling around in the boiling water and evenly color the garment.
- Take the shirt out of the boiling water and let it cool before sealing it inside a plastic wrap or large bag.
- Let the shirt sit overnight, and then unfold or untie it to expose the gorgeous tie-dye design.
- Next, give the shirt the best chance of remaining vibrantly colored forever by soaking it in a dye fixative solution of water and Retayne.
- Finally, rinse it under warm running water. The running water does not change color.
- Wash the shirt in your washing machine with normal detergent, and run it through the dryer.
6. Polyester MicrofiberYou can tie-dye polyester microfiber using an extra intensity of disperse dyes because microfiber sometimes does not dye evenly.
So, what is microfiber? Microfiber describes a type of fabric containing super skinny yarns, each measuring no more than one denier in width. This means microfiber contains fine threads to make a more closely woven, soft fabric.
You can find microfiber made out of several types of fabric fibers, including polyester and nylon. You can also find microfiber made with a terry-like looped surface or a flat, smooth, jersey knit surface.
Dyeing microfiber is a little challenging because the fabric has such compact fibers in it. A single strand of thread from microfiber might contain 100 to 200 tiny filaments in a slender thread, rather than the twenty to thirty larger filaments in a normal strand of yarn within the polyester fabric. This density means that it is not as easy for the dye to get down into the polyester fibers within all those closely packed filaments.
Also, the densely packed filaments create more surface area on the fabric, leading to uneven dyeing. One way to avoid this is to add more dye to your dye bath, but make sure you stir the dye bath steadily for the best results.
Polyester Tie-Dye that Does Not Work:
Now that you know how to properly tie-dye polyester, take a look at tie-dye methods that do not work well on this kind of fabric.
Ice Dye Polyester
Ice dye does not work well on polyester because it uses water-soluble dye and also because it does not use heat as part of the dyeing process.
To use the ice tie-dye method, you tie or fold your shirt in the desired pattern and then place it on a drying rack. You then spread a layer of ice cubes over the folded shirt, followed by a thick layer of powdered dye. As the ice melts, the dye powder dissolves and melts into the fabric in cool water-color-like designs.
You will see those designs at first if you try this using polyester. But the minute you rinse or wash the shirt, the design will disappear.
Bleach Tie-Dye Polyester
Bleach tie-dye does not work well on polyester, though you can sometimes get limited success by using strong bleach.
The synthetic dyes in standard polyester clothing do not respond well to bleach in the same way as the dyes in cotton clothing. This means you cannot bleach out cool designs to create tie-dye patterns in polyester clothing.
That said, if you use chlorine bleach such as Clorox and allow for longer soaking times, you may see some discoloring in your polyester garment and a faint or splotchy tie-dye design emerging. This is not a great idea, though, as prolonged exposure to this strong bleach could damage the fabric.
You will find much better success if you bleach tie-dye cotton clothing such as black t-shirts or jeans.
Polyester and Spandex
You should not try to dye a blend of polyester and spandex because the heat necessary for the dye bath will damage the elasticity of the spandex.
If you have leggings made out of stretchy polyester and Lycra, the same premise holds true. Don’t use any heating process on a garment that contains a lot of elastic.
Another reason for this is that the elastic fibers will not hold dye, so you could end up with lots of white flecks in your dye job.
You can dye polyester fleece using the disperse dye method, but tie-dyeing this type of fabric gets tough because of the fluffiness of the brushed surface of the fabric.
You can try scrunching or folding the fluffy fabric before dyeing but do not expect crisp edges on your tie-dye designs.
Also, make sure you check the fabric content before you try this. Some types of fleece contain highly flammable fibers that should not go in a boiling dye bath and could release harmful gases and/or melt or catch on fire!
Polyester Tie-Dye KitWhile it’s challenging to find a “tie-dye” kit for polyester, you can easily find polyester dyes to use for tie-dyeing your polyester shirts or fabric.
A few popular options include:
- RIT DyeMore is the synthetic version of dyes offered by the popular dye brand. You will notice that the package says “synthetic” on it to differentiate it from the brand’s better-known all-purpose dyes.
- Jacquard’s iDye Poly line of dyes has a great reputation for tie-dyeing polyester and is a go-to for many crafters.
- Tulip offers a line of Permanent Fabric Dyes that contain disperse dye to use in a boiling dye bath with polyester. Just don’t confuse this with the brand’s more common fiber-reactive dyes that come in a standard tie-dye kit!
How to Care for Tie-Dyed Polyester
You can easily care for tie-dyed polyester clothing if you use disperse dyes and boiling water to apply the dye. You do not need any special laundering techniques, as you can safely use your normal detergent and even place the shirt in the dryer without harming it.
You should always turn your shirt or garment inside out before washing it. This prevents unnecessary friction on the surface of the shirt, keeping the texture of the weave nice for longer.
If you did not use disperse dyes and tried another technique, such as all-purpose dye on a 50/50 polycotton blend garment, you may want to handwash the shirt. This gentle method will keep your shirt nice for longer, and it will also prevent any dye from bleeding onto other garments in the wash.
The best way to tie-dye polyester is to use a boiling dye bath and synthetic dye called disperse dyes. This type of dye works with non-ionized fabric like polyester and can bond with the heat-opened fibers inside the polyester. This creates a permanent color that will not fade or bleed in the wash.
If you use a water-soluble or fiber-reactive dye on polyester, the dye will not bond with the synthetic fabric and will eventually wash away. But you can use this method on a shirt that contains a mix of cotton and polyester because the dye will permanently bond with the cotton portion of the fabric to create a faded, vintage-style design.
Have you ever tried to dye polyester? Did you find the boiling dye bath overwhelming, or did you enjoy this complex and rewarding process? Leave a comment below to let us know!